Windy McPherson's Son

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book I - Chapter 6

Sam went along the board sidewalk homeward bound, hurried by the drivingMarch wind that had sent the lantern swinging in Freedom's hand. At thefront of a white frame residence a grey-haired old man stood leaning onthe gate and looking at the sky.

"We shall have a rain," he said in a quavering voice, as though giving adecision in the matter, and then turned and without waiting for an answerwent along a narrow path into the house.

The incident brought a smile to Sam's lips followed by a kind of wearinessof mind. Since the beginning of his work with Freedom he had, day afterday, come upon Henry Kimball standing by his gate and looking at the sky.The man was one of Sam's old newspaper customers who stood as a kind offigure in the town. It was said of him that in his youth he had been agambler on the Mississippi River and that he had taken part in more thanone wild adventure in the old days. After the Civil War he had come to endhis days in Caxton, living alone and occupying himself by keeping yearafter year a carefully tabulated record of weather variations. Once ortwice a month during the warm season he stumbled into Wildman's and,sitting by the stove, talked boastfully of the accuracy of his records andthe doings of a mangy dog that trotted at his heels. In his present moodthe endless sameness and uneventfulness of the man's life seemed to Samamusing and in some way sad.

"To depend upon going to the gate and looking at the sky to give point toa day--to look forward to and depend upon that--what deadliness!" hethought, and, thrusting his hand into his pocket, felt with pleasure theletter from the Chicago company that was to open so much of the bigoutside world to him.

In spite of the shock of unexpected sadness that had come with what hefelt was almost a definite parting with Freedom, and the sadness broughton by his mother's approaching death, Sam felt a strong thrill ofconfidence in his own future that made his homeward walk almost cheerful.The thrill got from reading the letter handed him by Freedom was renewedby the sight of old Henry Kimball at the gate, looking at the sky.

"I shall never be like that, sitting in a corner of the world watching amangy dog chase a ball and peering day after day at a thermometer," hethought.

The three years in Freedom Smith's service had taught Sam not to doubt hisability to cope with such business problems as might come in his way. Heknew that he had become what he wanted to be, a good business man, one ofthe men who direct and control the affairs in which they are concernedbecause of a quality in them called Business Sense. He recalled withpleasure the fact that the men of Caxton had stopped calling him a brightboy and now spoke of him as a good business man.

At the gate before his own house he stopped and stood thinking of thesethings and of the dying woman within. Back into his mind came the old manhe had seen at the gate and with him the thought that his mother's lifehad been as barren as that of the man who depended for companionship upona dog and a thermometer.

"Indeed," he said to himself, pursuing the thought, "it has been worse.She has not had a fortune on which to live in peace nor has she had theremembrance of youthful days of wild adventure that must comfort the lastdays of the old man. Instead she has been watching me as the old manwatches his thermometer and Father has been the dog in her house chasingplaythings." The figure pleased him. He stood at the gate, the windsinging in the trees along the street and driving an occasional drop ofrain against his cheek, and thought of it and of his life with his mother.During the last two or three years he had been trying to make things up toher. After the sale of the newspaper business and the beginning of hissuccess with Freedom he had driven her from the washtub and since thebeginning of her ill health he had spent evening after evening with herinstead of going to Wildman's to sit with the four friends and hear thetalk that went on among them. No more did he walk with Telfer or MaryUnderwood on country roads but sat, instead, by the bedside of the sickwoman or, the night falling fair, helped her to an arm chair upon thegrass plot at the front of the house.

The years, Sam felt, had been good years. They had brought him anunderstanding of his mother and had given a seriousness and purpose to theambitious plans he continued to make for himself. Alone together, themother and he had talked little, the habit of a lifetime making muchspeech impossible to her and the growing understanding of her making itunnecessary to him. Now in the darkness, before the house, he thought ofthe evenings he had spent with her and of the pitiful waste that had beenmade of her fine life. Things that had hurt him and against which he hadbeen bitter and unforgiving became of small import, even the doings of thepretentious Windy, who in the face of Jane's illness continued to go offafter pension day for long periods of drunkenness, and who only came hometo weep and wail through the house, when the pension money was gone,regretting, Sam tried in fairness to think, the loss of both the washwomanand the wife.

"She has been the most wonderful woman in the world," he told himself andtears of happiness came into his eyes at the thought of his friend, JohnTelfer, who in bygone days had praised the mother to the newsboy trottingbeside him on moonlit roads. Into his mind came a picture of her longgaunt face, ghastly now against the white of the pillows. A picture ofGeorge Eliot, tacked to the wall behind a broken harness in the kitchen ofFreedom Smith's house, had caught his eye some days before, and in thedarkness he took it from his pocket and put it to his lips, realising thatin some indescribable way it was like his mother as she had been beforeher illness. Freedom's wife had given him the picture and he had beencarrying it, taking it out of his pocket on lonely stretches of road as hewent about his work.

Sam went quietly around the house and stood by an old shed, a relic of anattempt by Windy to embark in raising chickens. He wanted to continue thethoughts of his mother. He began recalling her youth and the details of along talk they had held together on the lawn before the house. It wasextraordinarily vivid in his mind. He thought that even now he couldremember every word that had been said. The sick woman had talked of heryouth in Ohio, and as she talked pictures had come into the boy's mind.She had told him of her days as a bound girl in the family of a thinlipped, hard-fisted New Englander, who had come West to take a farm, andof her struggles to obtain an education, of the pennies saved to buybooks, of her joy when she had passed examinations and become a schoolteacher, and of her marriage to Windy--then John McPherson.

Into the Ohio village the young McPherson had come, to cut a figure in thetown's life. Sam had smiled at the picture she drew of the young man whowalked up and down the village street with girls on his arms, and whotaught a Bible class in the Sunday school.

When Windy proposed to the young school teacher she had accepted himeagerly, thinking it unbelievably romantic that so dashing a man shouldhave chosen so obscure a figure among all the women of the town.

"And even now I am not sorry although it has meant nothing but labour andunhappiness for me," the sick woman had told her son.

After marriage to the young dandy, Jane had come with him to Caxton wherehe bought a store and where, within three years, he had put the store intothe sheriff's hands and his wife into the position of town laundress.

In the darkness a grim smile, half scorn, half amusement, had flittedacross the face of the dying woman as she told of a winter when Windy andanother young fellow went, from schoolhouse to schoolhouse, over the stategiving a show. The ex-soldier had become a singer of comic songs and hadwritten letter after letter to the young wife telling of the applause thatgreeted his efforts. Sam could picture the performances, the little dimlylighted schoolhouses with the weatherbeaten faces shining in the light ofthe leaky magic lantern, and the delighted Windy running here and there,talking the jargon of stageland, arraying himself in his motley andstrutting upon the little stage.

"And all winter he did not send me a penny," the sick woman had said,interrupting his thoughts.

Aroused at last to expression, and filled with the memory of her youth,the silent woman had talked of her own people. Her father had been killedin the woods by a falling tree. Of her mother she told an anecdote,touching it briefly and with a grim humour that surprised her son.

The young school teacher had gone to call upon her mother once and for anhour had sat in the parlour of an Ohio farmhouse while a fierce old womanlooked at her with bold questioning eyes that made the daughter feel shehad been a fool to come.

At the railroad station she had heard an anecdote of her mother. The storyran, that once a burly tramp came to the farmhouse, and finding the womanalone tried to bully her, and that the tramp, and the woman, then in herprime, fought for an hour in the back yard of the house. The railroadagent, who told Jane the story, threw back his head and laughed.

"She knocked him out, too," he said, "knocked him cold upon the ground andthen filled him up with hard cider so that he came reeling into towndeclaring her the finest woman in the state."

In the darkness by the broken shed Sam's mind turned from thoughts of hismother to his sister Kate and of her love affair with the young farmer. Hethought with sadness of how she too had suffered because of the failingsof the father, of how she had been compelled to go out of the house towander in the dark streets to avoid the endless evenings of war talkalways brought on by a guest in the McPherson household, and of the nightwhen, getting a rig from Culvert's livery, she had driven off alone intothe country to return in triumph to pack her clothes and show her weddingring.

Before him there rose a picture of a summer afternoon when he had seen apart of the love making that had preceded this. He had gone into the storeto see his sister when the young farmer came in, looked awkwardly aboutand pushed a new gold watch across the counter to Kate. A sudden wave ofrespect for his sister had pervaded the boy. "What a sum it must havecost," he thought, and looked with new interest at the back of the loverand at the flushed cheek and shining eyes of his sister. When the lover,turning, had seen young McPherson standing at the counter, he laughedself-consciously and walked out at the door. Kate had been embarrassed andsecretly pleased and flattered by the look in her brother's eyes, but hadpretended to treat the gift lightly, twirling it carelessly back and forthon the counter and walking up and down swinging her arms.

"Don't go telling," she had said.

"Then don't go pretending," the boy had answered.

Sam thought that his sister's indiscretion, which had brought her a babeand a husband in the same month had, after all, ended better than theindiscretion of his mother in her marriage with Windy.

Rousing himself, he went into the house. A neighbour woman, employed forthe purpose, had prepared the evening meal and now began complaining ofhis lateness, saying that the food had got cold.

Sam ate in silence. While he ate the woman went out of the house andpresently returned, bringing a daughter.

There was in Caxton a code that would not allow a woman to be alone in ahouse with a man. Sam wondered if the bringing of the daughter was anattempt on the part of the woman to abide by the letter of the code, ifshe thought of the sick woman in the house as one already gone. Thethought amused and saddened him.

"You would have thought her safe," he mused. She was fifty, small, nervousand worn and wore a set of ill-fitting false teeth that rattled as shetalked. When she did not talk she rattled them with her tongue because ofnervousness.

In at the kitchen door came Windy, far gone in drink. He stood by the doorholding to the knob with his hand and trying to get control of himself.

"My wife--my wife is dying. She may die any day," he wailed, tearsstanding in his eyes.

The woman with the daughter went into the little parlour where a bed hadbeen put for the sick woman. Sam sat at the kitchen table dumb with angerand disgust as Windy, lurching forward, fell into a chair and begansobbing loudly. In the road outside a man driving a horse stopped and Samcould hear the scraping of the wheels against the buggy body as the manturned in the narrow street. Above the scraping of the wheels rose avoice, swearing profanely. The wind continued to blow and it had begun torain.

"He has got into the wrong street," thought the boy stupidly.

Windy, his head upon his hands, wept like a brokenhearted boy, his sobsechoing through the house, his breath heavy with liquor tainting the airof the room. In a corner by the stove the mother's ironing board stoodagainst the wall and the sight of it added fuel to the anger smoulderingin Sam's heart. He remembered the day when he had stood in the storedoorway with his mother and had seen the dismal and amusing failure of hisfather with the bugle, and of the months before Kate's wedding, when Windyhad gone blustering about town threatening to kill her lover and themother and boy had stayed with the girl, out of sight in the house, sickwith humiliation.

The drunken man, laying his head upon the table, fell asleep, his snoresreplacing the sobs that had stirred the boy's anger. Sam began thinkingagain of his mother's life.

The effort he had made to repay her for the hardness of her life nowseemed utterly fruitless. "I would like to repay him," he thought, shakenwith a sudden spasm of hatred as he looked at the man before him. Thecheerless little kitchen, the cold, half-baked potatoes and sausages onthe table, and the drunken man asleep, seemed to him a kind of symbol ofthe life that had been lived in that house, and with a shudder he turnedhis face and stared at the wall.

He thought of a dinner he had once eaten at Freedom Smith's house. Freedomhad brought the invitation into the stables on that night just as to-nighthe had brought the letter from the Chicago company, and just as Sam wasshaking his head in refusal of the invitation in at the stable door hadcome the children. Led by the eldest, a great tomboy girl of fourteen withthe strength of a man and an inclination to burst out of her clothes atunexpected places, they had come charging into the stables to carry Samoff to the dinner, Freedom laughingly urging them on, his voice roaring inthe stable so that the horses jumped about in their stalls. Into the housethey had dragged him, the baby, a boy of four, sitting astride his backand beating on his head with a woollen cap, and Freedom swinging a lanternand giving an occasional helpful push with his hand.

A picture of the long table covered with the white cloth at the end of thebig dining room in Freedom's house came back into the mind of the boy nowsitting in the barren little kitchen before the untasted, badly-cookedfood. Upon it lay a profusion of bread and meat and great dishes heapedwith steaming potatoes. At his own house there had always been just enoughfood for the single meal. The thing was nicely calculated, when you hadfinished the table was bare.

How he had enjoyed that dinner after the long day on the road. With aflourish and a roar at the children Freedom heaped high the plates andpassed them about, the wife or the tomboy girl bringing unending freshsupplies from the kitchen. The joy of the evening with its talk of thechildren in school, its sudden revelation of the womanliness of the tomboygirl, and its air of plenty and good living haunted the mind of the boy.

"My mother never knew anything like that," he thought.

The drunken man who had been sleeping aroused himself and began talkingloudly--some old forgotten grievance coming back to his mind, he talked ofthe cost of school books.

"They change the books in the school too often," he declared in a loudvoice, turning and facing the kitchen stove, as though addressing anaudience. "It is a scheme to graft on old soldiers who have children. Iwill not stand it."

Sam, enraged beyond speech, tore a leaf from a notebook and scrawled amessage upon it.

"Be silent," he wrote. "If you say another word or make another sound todisturb mother I will choke you and throw you like a dead dog into thestreet."

Reaching across the table and touching his father on the hand with a forktaken from among the dishes, he laid the note upon the table under thelamp before his eyes. He was fighting with himself to control a desire tospring across the room and kill the man who he believed had brought hismother to her death and who now sat bellowing and talking at her verydeath bed. The desire distorted his mind so that he stared about thekitchen like one seized with an insane nightmare.

Windy, taking the note in his hand, read it slowly and then, notunderstanding its import and but half getting its sense, put it in hispocket.

"A dog is dead, eh?" he shouted. "Well you're getting too big and smart,lad. What do I care for a dead dog?"

Sam did not answer. Rising cautiously, he crept around the table and puthis hand upon the throat of the babbling old man.

"I must not kill," he kept telling himself aloud, as though talking to astranger. "I must choke until he is silent, but I must not kill."

In the kitchen the two men struggled silently. Windy, unable to rise,struck out wildly and helplessly with his feet. Sam, looking down at himand studying the eyes and the colour in the cheeks, realised with a startthat he had not for years seen the face of his father. How vividly itstamped itself upon his mind now, and how coarse and sodden it had become.

"I could repay all of the years mother has spent over the dreary washtubby just one long, hard grip at this lean throat. I could kill him with solittle extra pressure," he thought.

The eyes began to stare at him and the tongue to protrude. Across theforehead ran a streak of mud picked up somewhere in the long afternoon ofdrunken carousing.

"If I were to press hard now and kill him I would see his face as it looksnow all the days of my life," thought the boy.

In the silence of the house he heard the voice of the neighbour womanspeaking sharply to her daughter. The familiar, dry, tired cough of thesick woman followed. Sam took the unconscious old man in his arms and wentcarefully and silently out at the kitchen door. The rain beat down uponhim and, as he went around the house with his burden, the wind, shakingloose a dead branch from a small apple tree in the yard, blew it againsthis face, leaving a long smarting scratch. At the fence before the househe stopped and threw his burden down a short grassy bank into the road.Then turning he went, bareheaded, through the gate and up the street.

"I will go for Mary Underwood," he thought, his mind returning to thefriend who years before had walked with him on country roads and whosefriendship he had dropped because of John Telfer's tirades against allwomen. He stumbled along the sidewalk, the rain beating down upon his barehead.

"We need a woman in our house," he kept saying over and over to himself."We need a woman in our house."

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